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vilja

Vilja Reads

I'm a student, so I don't have nearly as much time for leisure reading as I'd like. If I manage to read an entire course book instead of just the assigned chapters, I'll review that here, too.

Baggage

Baggage - Jack Vivace

Garcia is a freelance magician with a part-time job at a call centre and an uneconomical penchant for good deeds. A purse-snatcher gets away with her bag of tools, which starts a series of events that leads her first to the underworld, then on a road trip to Los Angeles with a librarian and two clingy ghosts.

 

This was an easy quick read, and charming in a way. Events advance at their own momentum and the incidental practical magic - like the Walmart in the underworld - is especially engaging. There isn't anything very mysterious about magic to Garcia - it's just a trade like any other, fascinating like gardening to a hydrangea enthusiast, and that's where the charm of the story lies. 

 

That being said, like many self-published stories, this could have used an editor or a beta reader. There were mistakes such a point repeated twice as the author was deciding between two ways to give the information and forgot to delete one, a few typoes - of the sort that spells weak as week, which wouldn't be caught by a spell-checker - and most glaringly, a character who changes her first name from Barbara to Peggy in the two add-on scenes in the end. Apart from these sorts of technical problems, the story occasionally tended towards telling not showing, and I'm personally peeved that we got no physical description of any kind for half the cast.

 

If you can put those kinds of concerns aside, it really is a very pleasant read, with a likeable lead and a lesbian romance, which is always a bonus for me. And why wouldn't you? We don't demand perfection, only to be entertained. 

 

Amazing Agent Luna

Amazing Agent Luna, Vol. 1 - Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Shiei

When I reviewed Amazing Agent Jennifer, I said it didn't make me feel like I had to then read Amazing Agent Luna. True, but I guess I did anyway - at least the first five volumes, which are available free online.

 

The series follows Luna, genetically enhanced and raised at an army base, in her first year in high school. Her "mom" and "dad" are her control agent and psychiatrist, and her mission is to find out why Count von Brucken seems so interested in Nobel High. She soon finds herself more distracted by boys, friends, and a budding seed of resistance to the demands of the job she was bred for.

 

The background art is excellent, though it fails on character design. Luna also fails to be an interesting character, being a collection of cliches about sweet shy super-powered schoolgirls. Writing a separate series for Jennifer Kajiwara, Luna's 'Control', was a stroke of genius. She is a better character - hard, cold, demanding, and motivated by absolute loyalty to the agency as well as the desire to remain emotionally distant at all times. You're likely to hate her, but she and her slow thawing towards Luna and Andrew is more interesting than Luna's teen crush on blond and broody prettyboy Jonah. 

 

The whole thing was exceedingly tropey, fanservicey and silly, but there was consistency and craft in how each cliffhanger was organized, so it was a fast and enjoyable read. 

 

Amazing Agent Jennifer

Amazing Agent Jennifer, Vol. 1 - Kriss Sison, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir

College student Jennifer is recruited on her freshman year to join a shadowy U.S. agency as a trainee. The two volumes track Jennifer, gifted and single-minded with very little interest in creating social ties, as she cuts off tie after tie to the "normal" world and devotes herself entirely to the service. 

 

I surprised myself by picking the comic up in first place. I also read it in one sitting - not as surprising if you know my comic book habits. The premise is so typical that I didn't expect it to be handled as well as it was. I certainly didn't expect introverted Jennifer to get through the entire thing without being opened up like a gentle flower by the first stirrings of love, etc. Her introversion and pursuit of her scholarly interests is rewarded, and she's allowed to shape her life into what she chooses to make of it, even if that puts her under the strict observation of her commanders - a constrained life chosen freely. That's about the only real surprise, but in a well-told story, it's all you need to get to four stars.

 

I rarely rate comic books on the art, but the art in this one, it must be said, is painstaking, with that minute attention to detail in the backgrounds and items we've come to expect from manga and pseudo-manga alike. The art did, it must be said, get clumsy when it came to drawing bodies, especially the bodies of women, which have an unnatural elongated look with a waist-dip that doesn't really work even if you accept that their design is highly stylized. The wages of impossible beauty ideals dog us at every turn. 

 

I was rather pleased with the framing of the story as the beginning of another typical manga story, the genetically engineered supersoldier, until I learned it actually was a prequel to another series focusing on just that supersoldier. Even so, it stands on its own, and I don't feel like I need to read Amazing Agent Luna to understand it or follow it up.

Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day

The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day - Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen

If you've read the first three Sciences of Discworld, you know the drill: A short Discworld story is interspersed by long discourses on somewhat related science. I've enjoyed all of them so far, though perhaps Darwin's Watch most of all. This time around, a little fatigue has set in. That, and Richard Dawkins is a sexist asshole and I'm not too fond of having him uncritically praised just because he happens to be the most visible face of today's atheism. 

 

The Discworld story concerns a dispute between conservative Omnians and the wizards on the intellectual property right of Roundworld, meaning the universe which contains our own round Earth, which the wizards created in a magical accident and store in the Unseen University. It also introduces Discworld's first official Mary Sue, a librarian from England called Marjorie Daw, who is very sensible and has cosmological discussions with Archchancellor Ridcully over tea and biscuits. (That's just how Discworld WOULD do the Mary Sue trope.)

 

The science part roams over the shape and nature of the universe, of particle physics, embryo formation, early life forms, and various flaws in commonly accepted or widely supported assumptions about the way things work, expounding systems thinking to explain away the need for finely balanced universal constants to enable life... oh, just read it. It was fun. It also clocked a lot more word count than the story, but that's been the case with all SoDs.

 

I do have a bone to pick: That the saunter through the wonders of the universe is tied up with, employed in the service of, and constantly interrupted by an encomium to atheism. I'm not saying organized religion isn't a tool for power as well as a comfort for those tired of uncertainty, or that it doesn't do any damage. That's human power politics and dominant ideologies for you. It just gets boring, repetitive, and annoying, and it makes me want to go perform some religious service just to spite them. I was there for the science and for the Discworld, not for the authors' anxiety over the sanity of the human race.

 

Gay New York

Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 - George Chauncey

Scholarly and thoroughly researched, Gay New York charts the development of the gay subculture of New York from the late 19th century to the 1930s and the changing conceptions and stereotypes around same-sex attraction and gender variance - inextricably linked through the early social conception of gay men and women as gender-variant. Though confining itself to gay male subculture, the text can't help but brush lesbian history, and also functions as a history of the city's night life during the same period.

 

The book probably rightly deserved a full fourth star but I'm contrary, and wish to protest the fact the book had nothing to say about the distinction between homosexuality and pederasty, or anything at all about the possibility of what we'd now call transsexuality or bisexuality.

 

I'd excuse it on the grounds that the author was using the definitions of he era, except he wasn't - people who would have identified as fairies, queer or inverts by their own testimony were all labeled "gay men" or "homosexual men". I don't believe the word "transsexual" ever came up, and "bisexual" was only in reference to the 19th century use, meaning gender variant, which in turn meant anyone who experienced same-sex attraction. Since the modern view had to be mentioned in order to clarify the content when it came to homosexuality, the lack of mention of bi- or transsexuality smacks of erasure. We've come full circle in this sense - from Krafft-Ebing claiming all people attracted to other people of their assigned sex are trans, to Chauncey ignoring the existence of trans people altogether in favour of classing them all as gay. 

 

Nonetheless, this is a book I devoured because of the insight it gave to the history of modern Western conceptions of same-sex attraction, and a great follow-up to Asbury's The Gangs of New York as a history of that city's social life. I'm hoping to find a lesbian history of the same period to fill in the gaping blank.

 

 

Rumpled

Rumpled - Lacey Louwagie

Don't let the cover fool you. This story may have come from a writers' workshop and likely self-published, but it reads like professional fiction. The story flows along pleasantly and absorbs for the afternoon it takes to read it (at least for me). As a fresh take on the Rumplestiltskin story told from the point of view of the gnarled little magician, it satisfies in many ways, and if anything enhances the agency and cleverness of its heroine.

Prescription For Murder

Murder, She Wrote: Prescription For Murder - Jessica Fletcher, Donald Bain

I picked up this book because I unashamedly love Murder, She Wrote and figured you really couldn't go very wrong with formulaic murder fluff. But turns out it just wasn't very good.

 

Meticulously researched and plotted, yes, but it rather read like a tour guide to Tampa and Havana crossed with a Learn English book - where every point in the plot is elaborated and repeated several times over in clear and precise sentences. It also seemed to be set in a world that uses thumb drives but also still uses letters and notes to communicate, though I suppose that could be because many of the central characters were senior citizens. 

 

The clues and keypoints were laid out with writers' workshop precision, so I wonder why the author made such a key error in a mystery novel: not have his detective actually detect anything? Jessica appeared to be just along for the ride and the meals, described in detail down to ingredients.

 

As an episode script, it would have been just fine. As a whole book, however short, it was tedious. More passion, even at the cost of clarity, might work out better next time.

 

 

The End of Growth

The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality - Richard Heinberg

The title of the book states its content. The Club of Rome wrote on the limits of growth; now, Heinberg argues, we've reached them. Our economic system is based on continual growth of the GDP. If that growth is driven by cheap energy, and cheap energy is at an end as easily accessible carbon fuel sources deplete, it's time to prepare for the collapse of world economy.

 

In my <140 character review of this book on Twitter, I called it "feisty", and I stand by that. Heinberg makes a point to speak of future projections as given, and I could see why. The "we'll be in trouble IF we don't act now" rhetoric has been employed since the 70s and it failed to mobilize change fast enough to avoid the present situation. It's time to say, okay, we are up shit creek without a paddle NOW. This WILL happen. What are we going to do to minimize the losses and suffering that are going to result from our decades of excess, and from the bursting of the biggest bubble in history?

 

The style makes for captivating reading, even if it makes the text seem slightly less academic, especially since Heinberg then eagerly promotes the Transition Network. There's something depressingly cultish about the idea of depending on a grassroots citizens' movement for sustainable living, which must base its functioning on the assumption that human beings are not terrible. I would have put more stock on a plan to recreate economy in a way that makes sense to the people in power, who cannot be expected to act out of selflessness: the CEOs and politicians, who would not be where they are now if they were not driven by the pressure to grab advantage where they can see it. Citizen organizations are essential, but they can only do so much, especially in a short time frame.

 

In many ways, this book was educational, and neatly covers the recent financial crisis and the evolution of financial operations in the past few decades in an accessible style. I could recommend it just based on those chapters. Well worth a read.

 

The Whale and the Reactor

The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology - Langdon Winner

Winner discusses technology as a social force and actor, rather than just a product or a source of social phenomena. Among other subjects, he covers the rise and fall of environmentalism in the 60s and 70s and describes how it seems to have been absorbed into consumer culture through products aimed at energy efficiency. He also theorizes on the effect of computer culture.

 

Written in 1986 and discussing the rise of computer science and enthusiasm from an anti-technology - or anti-technocracy - point of view, the book serves as a time capsule of sorts, showing us then-future projections of the information revolution. Winner was wrong in doubting the widespread cultural adoption of computers or the prospect of a “global network”, but the enthusiasts he cites seem to have ignored how much human beings, in general, suck (yes, there sprung up a number of subculture groups centered around interests; no, communication didn’t foster human unity more than it did trolling and harassment), and underestimated the sturdiness of institutional power (internet has not equalized society). 

 

Winner freely admits his bias, but it does not seem to have interfered with his analysis. Futurology is not easy, and I'm impressed by his astuteness - as well as that of those early enthusiasts. Both were dead right on several points.

Environment and Society

Environment and Society (Routledge Introductions to Environment: Environment and Society Texts) - Erika Cudworth

A walk-through of sociology's approaches to the relationship between people and environment. Beyond the subject of environmental movements, Cudworth discusses the relationship of sociology itself to the subject of the environment, and looks into the myriad associations and meanings of "nature".

 

The author is candid about her own take on the subject and, refreshingly, doesn't put the word eco-feminism into quotes. The text is structured in the style of a textbook, including aids to memory through a listing of key points at the end of each chapter, and so a good place to start reading more widely.

 

Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science

Hubris and Hybrids: A Cultural History of Technology and Science - Mikael Hxe5rd, Andrew Jamison

The title of the book refers to Hård and Jamison's contention that scientific aspiration rests largely on hubris, and that the men (only men) who have been central figures in forming the (Western-centric) history of technology were often "hybrid figures" straddling or crossing the lines between science, technology and social engineering.

 

 

I was prejudiced against this book from chapter one. It's hard not to be suspicious of a history of technology that describes Francis Crick and Alexander Graham Bell as heroic figures without mentioning that they stole the work they're best remembered for, or that brushes away all contributions of women scientists and craftsmen as insignificant. But to be fair - Hård and Jamison are talking about the Western narratives of technology's history, not the minutiae, and those narratives do tend to make heroes of Western men. Nonetheless, this book makes no attempt to be any different.

 

Leaving that aside, the style of the book, which was probably intended to be accessible and dynamic, manages to come off as undisciplined and pompous.

 

Is it a good summary of the history of our cultural conceptions of technology? Does it do a good job of describing technology's integration into and adoption (or "appropriation" as the authors prefer to call it) by society? Hard to say. I lost my faith in the authors early on, and with it most of my interest in the storylines they attempted to sketch.

Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science and Politics for the Environment

Compass and Gyroscope: Integrating Science And Politics For The Environment - Kai N. Lee

The only GoodReads review for this book read "Deadly boring. Run away as fast as you can." I suppose it depends on where your interests lie.

 

Lee speaks temperately and sensibly on a subject of delicate management of a huge and fragile organization -- a government project to manage an entire ecosystem. Though an academic, he speaks from experience, having been involved in attempts to replenish the salmon stock of the Columbia river basin after decades of the river being altered and used for hydroelectricity.

 

Still with us? All right.

 

Far from being a history of a single project, the book becomes a how-to of sorts on large-scale ecological management. The "compass" refers to adaptive management and civic science; to project design that aims to learn from experience. The gyroscope symbolizes bounded conflict, in which the push-pull of opposing interests and goals creates a dynamic equilibrium that, according to Lee, is the best state to foster positive development, despite or even because of the uncertainty it creates.

 

The strength and delight of the book for me was its lack of hubris (something I've been quite glutted with reading other works on environment and society) and its focus on finding workable solutions to the problems of management, loss of natural resources, navigating the field of politics, social change and the conception of poverty, racial or cultural exclusion, and expenditure in recession and in a growth period. Lee doesn't claim to be able to solve any of these issues definitively, the results being dependent on so many specifics, but the way he points is worth paying attention to, and I feel this book has enriched my understanding of environmental policy in action.

 

Off-Topic

OFF-TOPIC: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader - G.R. Reader

This is a book about Goodreads written by Goodreads users, which I first saw on Goodreads, and downloaded for free via a link on its Goodreads book page.

It is a collection of essays, for lack of a better word, of outrage regarding a change in Goodreads policy. All essays - articles? - were first published on Goodreads as "reviews" or updates. It trawls the issue to discuss the subjects of censorship, free speech, marketing and privacy. I'm rating it three stars for being interesting, but this review is mostly going to be, as they say, off-topic. 

This is the first I ever heard of this site-wide kerfuffle, which boils down to: 

1. Goodreads is bought by Amazon.
2. Goodreads starts pulling "reviews that focus on author behavior", in essence any review in which, or in the comments to which, an author is badmouthed, and any shelves dedicated to books the Goodreader in question is making a point never to read.
3. Outrage. 
4. Dismissive response.
5. Holy shit now it's really going down, motherfuckers. 

 

I no longer expect businesses to be any better at dealing with online arguments than the average celebrity. It's not supposed to be that hard not to be a dick when called out on your shit. You acknowledge their point, undo what you did if you can, apologize sincerely, and never do it again, having come out of the conversation wiser and more considerate, one hopes. Don't press the point or offer a mild modification. Nobody ever says anything nearly as bad to cause initial offence as what they say afterwards trying to defend it.

Having read Off-Topic, I do now have misgivings about Goodreads - not because they're interfering with reviewers who are using a space meant for book reviews to write their diaries or whip themselves up into a fury over PR-inept authors or even real scumbag authors. The interference, from what I've seen, has been fairly minor. Also not because I think "the Goodreads community" has been damaged by GR's policies - it seems I was never a part of this community, since I've used GR for reviews and personal interest rather than conversations. It's rather because I never read the TOS, as nobody ever does, and I'm uncomfortable with the idea that GR thinks it owns my reviews.

 

I'm not saying I think anybody would necessarily be interested in reading a published-for-money book collecting my thoughts on YA and mystery novels, but I also don't like the idea that I might not be able to publish one if I wanted to. I'm also uncomfortable being reminded that all this info is being mined by Amazon so it can recommend me books not only by the stereotypes of my gender and age, but by the subject matter and genre I've read before.

Am I going to leave Goodreads? Kinda. I made a BookLikes account and I enjoy their posting platform more, as well as a Leafmarks account, but the latter I won't be updating before they sort their site out a bit more - currently it's too slow and buggy. I haven't quite decided to terminate my Goodreads account yet. I have too many accounts, so maybe later, but there's no hurry. We'll see how this whole thing develops. 

On the subject of freedom of speech... Do we support, as freedom of speech, efforts to shut down other speech through threats and abuse? It's not a value, it's a managerial choice, modified as necessary; one of a pack of tools to make discussion possible. 

I still had to make sure to send myself a copy of this review before I clicked post, so I could republish it on BookLikes. You never know how fast they can be with their red flags and delete buttons.

The Diviners

The Diviners - Libba Bray

The 1920s are in full swing when a series of occult murders rocks New York.

 

Young Evie O'Neill is sent from Ohio to the Big Apple to cool her heels under the watchful eye of her uncle Will, an academic in charge of a museum of supernatural history. She, her friends, and her Uncle Will turn out to be the last line of defense against a murderer that is beyond the scope of ordinary police work.

 

I'm new to Libba Bray, who, it seems, has quite a bibliography already. My first impressions were not that favorable. Evie is the epitome of an upper-middle class flapper to the point that she seems, at first, cardboard cut-out. Uncle Will is the stern dry academic with a heart of gold and Sam the pickpocket is the "charming" rascal (I was not charmed; his pursuit of Evie borders on harassment).

 

Theta, the Ziegfeld girl, is also a cliche of the era through and through, but a much more entertaining one; I became very fond of her. Memphis, who remains tied to the story but stays on the sidelines for most of it, stands out as a black character in a 1920s story written by a white person (rare enough on its own) and as one who is not defined by, in a supporting position to, or completely surrounded by white characters; who exists as a part of a black American culture, family, and society, and is furthermore his own character: A wannabe poet with a hero's heart and a very young man trying to find his place in a confusion of influences. 

 

The story was rollicking, the plot unwound neatly, and picked up pace once the source of the murders' mythology was revealed. I came to enjoy all of the characters, including Evie, especially when she was her spunkiest. The climax, however pulpy, was deliciously thrilling. Bray seems to have a great grasp of building a story and creating momentum. 

 

And yet there was a kind of an immaturity to the writing itself. Some could be put down to editorial mistakes, such as a scene where Sam refers to something he only learns later in the conversation, and some are so minor they are barely worth mentioning, such as overused expressions and rather cinematic effects of supernatural manifestations. I might criticize the romance more, had it paired the characters up as neatly as I first thought it would; as it is, I was pleasantly surprised. And, a niggle but it must be mentioned: energy healing is not divining, nor is there any reason to capitalize "diviners" - unless you're marketing a toy line.

 

So what's the final word? It's very pulpy. The writing itself needs some improvement. The cliches abound - but are delightful. It was a very enjoyable read, and while it took me three months to read the first third (what can I say - I had study books to read, too), the rest was devoured in fairly short order, considering how busy I have been in the meanwhile. The author clearly has a great grasp of storytelling, and I can only hope her wordsmithing improves as well, because I will want to read Part #2 in the series - not for the characters, or the foreshadowed future conflict, but because I want to be this well entertained again.

 

Fragmentary Blue

Fragmentary Blue - Erica Abbott

I read the second novel in this lesbian police procedural series before I read the first, but it didn't seem to detract from my enjoyment of either.

 

Despite the gritty (enough) genre and pulling no emotional punches, both novels were the kind of wish-fulfillment that actually works for  me, with distinct, attractive women who don't have to be young or skinny being excellent at their demanding jobs, winning the fight, and falling in love, despite hurdles and human weaknesses. Points off for being so obviously wish-fulfillment; points back for being so delicious about it.

Before I Died

Before I Died - Sara Marx

It's hard to pin down just what I did not like about this ghost novel, other than that the dead were called Deads, as if the author was looking to market a toy line.

 

The story was consistent enough, the struggles of parental control and controlling co-parents familiar, and of course I always enjoy a lesbian angle. The vision of afterlife just didn't work for me; removing emotion and humanity from the protagonist made it hard to identify with her, or even make her sound like a distinct person.